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First, Second Generation Immigrant Poets Make Their Voices Heard


National Poetry Month celebrates its tenth anniversary this April. It has been a decade of change in American poetry, with the arrival of a diverse new array of poets on the literary scene. Many are so-called hyphenated Americans -- first or second-generation immigrants who are giving readers a fresh perspective on what it means to live in two worlds.

The newcomers include poets like Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Her poetry is also shaped by the mix of slang words she grew up hearing. This is an excerpt from her poem "Swear Words:"

Even now I laugh when I see the look on my mother's face, when I swear in Tagalog. I have no idea what these phrases really mean, but they have been spattered on me since I was still a fat bawling baby and scattered onto my head when I've toppled juice glasses on white carpet or come home past curfew…

Aimee Nezhukumatathil said her parents' native languages helped make her a poet. "Sometimes when they would tell stories of their childhood, they would break into their language," she recalled, "and there would be words they would say that are untranslatable. So I would just substitute the words I thought they should be."

Aimee Nezhukumatathil's poetry collection Miracle Fruit was published two years ago by Tupelo Press. Jeffrey Levine launched this Vermont publishing house in 1999 to give voice to emerging poets. Many of them turned out to be from immigrant backgrounds, ranging from Vietnamese to Korean to Russian. "We've not necessarily gone out and looked for hyphenated Americans," Mr. Levine explained. "But we seem to be building a core of wonderfully talented first and second generation American writers. I think we're seeing a renaissance of interest in hyphenated American writers, particularly Asian-American writers. But on the other hand this is really nothing new. Poetry is founded on first and second generation writing."

Jeffrey Levine said poets who grow up hearing other languages at home can often hear English in novel ways -- and see the world with fresh eyes. As an example, he pointed to Vietnamese-American writer Mong Lan, whose upcoming book will be published by Tupelo Press. "She's as apt to be talking about bamboo as she is about New York subways," Mr. Levine noted. "So it's the mixture of those imageries that's so exciting. The work itself is hyphenated."

Russian-American poet Ilya , in the former Soviet Union, he has been deaf since he was a small child. For that reason, he has relied heavily on visual impressions to write his poems. He came to the United States in 1993 with his parents, and now writes in both Russian and English. "When I write in Russian I write very formal poetry," said Mr. Kaminsky. "In Russian it's mostly about music. In English, it's more about moments of being. And usually those moments come as images to me. There were two things that immediately struck me when I came to America. One was that nobody walked on the streets. At first I thought there had been some kind of disaster. The second thing, however, was that people smile at you when you do see them on the streets."

These lines are from a poem called "Praise", included in his award-winning collection

Dancing in Odessa:

America! I put the words on a page. It is my keyhole. I watch the streets, the shops, the bicyclist, the oleanders, two women strolling along the waterfront. I open the windows of an apartment and say, I had masters once, they roared above me, Who are we? Why are we here?

If hyphenated American poets blend languages and images, they also express a mix of emotions in their work -- both the excitement of discovering a new culture, and the difficulty of finding a place in that culture. Vietnamese-American poet Barbara Tran said her writing grew out of the feeling that she was not quite American enough in the outside world, or Vietnamese enough at home. She was the only child in her family who was not taught to speak Vietnamese, and her poem "Venus" explores the barriers that that created:

On the other end of the line my mother drones on. It does not matter what she says. These are sounds I cannot repeat. Though I can translate the words for you. It is in her tone that her message lies.

Barbara Tran described her poetry as a way to make connections through words and stories. "The family came over during the 1960s without knowing they were leaving forever," she explained. "And as the years rolled by they spoke less and less of Vietnam. So I think the poems are a means of creating this place in time I never experienced."

Barbara Tran has published a collection called In The Mynah Bird's Own Words, and she helped edit She suggested that 30 years after the end of their native country's divisive conflict, Vietnamese American writers are not only moving in new directions, but coming to terms with their common history. "I think it's partially time and partially security," she said. "It takes very long to process and deal with. For the younger generation it's scary that we might never hear about it. And if the younger generation isn't out there recreating the past, or representing it in some way, it can be lost."

Time and security may also account for the fact that poets from immigrant families are turning their backs on more lucrative professions like medicine or engineering. Aimee Nezhukumatathil went to college planning to become a doctor, then realized her real passion was writing. She's since come to feel part of a growing community. "The fact that I can even say 'contemporaries' is amazing to me," she noted. "When I was an undergraduate back in the mid- to early 1990s, I could think of maybe five Asian-American poets who were publishing actively. Now there are so many more, and a lot of them are escapees from the pre-med programs, pre-engineering -- these writers across the country."

The top selling books at Tupelo Press are those by poets from immigrant backgrounds, according to publisher Jeffrey Levine. And they are having an impact that extends beyond their own communities. "The poetry lover in general seems to be flocking to find out what these voices are doing," he noted. "We're as curious as anyone else about how others see us, especially as those others are in the process of becoming us."

Jeffrey Levine said that judging by the manuscripts he has read, native-born poets in the United States are experimenting more with language and style. It could be a sign that poets from immigrant backgrounds have an inventive spirit that is contagious.

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